Millennial Blues: On Our Unending Nostalgia for the ’90s

Ethan Davenport examines millennial nostalgia for the '90s.
By    July 13, 2017

80s

Ethan Davenport is not here for your Hey Arnold think piece. 

I’m 20 years-old. I was born after 2Pac died, I don’t remember Al Gore as a politician, and I wasn’t even 5 years-old on 9/11. If you want to discuss the 2004 Pistons with me I’ll talk about Sheed all day from pure memory, but I know nothing about Saddam Hussein. My friends can only tell me where they were the morning of 9/11, but nothing more, which hardly counts as a personal recollection of an event of that magnitude.

These same friends also tell me not having Biggie in my top 5 is blasphemous, Illmatic is one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever, and Michael Jordan should never be questioned as the GOAT. They’ve been alive for one of the two Biggie albums, their favorite Nas songs are by DJ Khaled, and they’ve only seen MJ play in a Wizards jersey. People born after 1995 know nothing about the ’90s, but would die before letting anyone disrespect the so-called greatest decade of all time and the reason is still unclear.

What I know about the ’90s is: Bill Clinton did some swell economic stuff, rap moved closer to cultural ubiquity, the Olympics were highlighted by NBA superstars for the first time, three of the most influential rappers ever died within a year of each other, that Monica Lewinsky stuff pissed a few Republicans off, and everyone probably dressed like Topanga, Will Smith, or Tim Allen. All of that seems better than the dystopia we live in today, but it’s hardly enough to warrant glorification from people who experienced it through NICK @ NITE and MTV reruns.

Embellishing the culture of an era that you didn’t live through isn’t new. My dad still talks about the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Stones, despite all their best music coming out before he was six. In a Stockholm syndrome-esque fashion, perhaps those born after ’95 began to love the music of the ’90s because their parents controlled the radio. For example, against my own will I memorized Shania Twain’s 1997 hit, “Man I Feel Like a Woman,” and would perform it in my car seat like Tuesday night karaoke.

Young kids listen to what your parents choose until they’re old enough to buy a CD, or attain music online. For us 20-somethings, the internet happened to grow in the same way we did, so when it was our turn to decide what we’d listen to, we had the ability to listen to every song ever made…for free. Suddenly I had seven viruses and 50 TLC songs on the home computer.

I’m certainly not an exception. If you gain the power to listen to any music you want, you’re going to primarily download what you know, thus ’90s music lives through to the next generation. The accessibility of downloading made it easier to find music, meaning I could listen to songs five years older than me and jam to something outside of my lifetime.

My uncle was the first to school me on ’90s music. In a discussion about contemporary rappers, at a time in which I had only listened to rap for a couple years and had no dogs in this fight, my uncle rattled off names that blew my mind: Nas, 2Pac, Andre 3000, RZA, Nate Dogg, and so on, but that was the end of the conversation. We didn’t listen to any of the music, he simply listed artists—albeit amazing examples of ’90s hip-hop—which didn’t prove anything. In a respect-your-elders way I heard him out and agreed.

We are consistently told that the rap during Bill Clinton’s presidency was the best of all-time, and many 20-somethings fetishize the ’90s based on what they’re told. When we listen to the era, we only hear it in a positive light, looking for why our relatives boast of its greatness, and it fascinates us. We love the music of the ’90s without ever truly knowing the decade, but we don’t even need to know the history to appreciate a song.

Recently, I asked a few of my immediate friends about their rap top-5 because I live for ruining friendships. Some responses were questionable, but I don’t care if you put Asher Roth in your top-5 as long as you truly believe it. The most memorable response consisted of four deserved rappers of the 21st century, with the fifth spot belonging to either 2Pac or B.I.G., “because obviously that’s an obligation,” he said. I asked why they’re an obligation and his answer was essentially due to the aura around their artistry, but he could only name a handful of their songs off the top of his head.

That’s the mystique of the ’90s. My peers and I haven’t experienced it, but damn do we think all the love it receives is justified. While the argument, “because I’m supposed to like them,” is slightly lazy, it says what is needed. The decade’s glory is pushed forward by people my age. We know of its greatness because of people like my uncle, and we celebrate that in any way we can. I first listened to Biggie, Ghostface, and Ice Cube because I was told they were great. And then I discovered their music is great.

Outside of rap top-5, the ’90s is the main focus of NBA greatest of all-time arguments. People my age seem split 50-50 on the Jordan vs. LeBron debate. Fighting for one of them is an uphill battle anyway since there’s no way to prove who is more dominant of a player in a team sport, especially when those two men are separated by 20 years, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the reason why people visit basketball-reference.com.

Young MJ fans typically have the, “because I’m supposed to” argument in mind. They certainly have never seen the Bulls of the ’90s rip through NBA teams like they’re high schoolers, so the only reason MJ is the “best” is that someone’s dad said so. A 20-something in an NBA argument may be more on edge than a teenager playing Xbox, but that’s the power of the ’90s; 20 year-olds continue to rep for the era based on stories we’ve been told and videos we’ve watched, and we know that the decade’s importance is unmatched by any other time period. If you want to claim someone is the greatest, they have to go through the ’90s as the final boss level.

Other eras hardly garner the sort of respect that the ’90s gets from those my age. From my distant opinion, the decade will be loved beyond its thirty-year cycle. Rap and the NBA changed American culture forever and both seemed to ride at peaks in the ’90s, forcing its way toward generations born after 9/11.

On Prima Donna Vince Staples raps, “I ain’t need no accolades/Boy I’m here to act a fool,” and Vince is extremely on par. Accolades don’t mean much compared to how you act, or your pure stardom. My parents never talked about who won the Grammy for Best Rap Album in 1997 (Fugees—The Score for inquiring minds), but I heard stories about 2Pac. What immortalizes an era is the tales about who was acting a fool, and it’s certainly what forces people my age to feel a deep love for a culture they were barely alive during.

NBA finals records, Grammys, and posthumous biopics are not why we feel the need to respect the ’90s. The passion of people who lived through the decade pushes us to check out all that ’90s culture has to offer. Twenty year-olds may not have lived through ’90s culture, but we have an affinity for the decade that seems unanimously loved. We know that it’s not our era to embellish, but we’re more like perennial tourists—we know the landscape without a map, but not very much about the history.

So, if you’re a hard ’90s pusher who hates millennials, I’m here to break bread, and admit that we love your era and wish we knew more about the music and the NBA players. Teach us.